I’ve always had an affinity for the Italian language (even if I don’t understand Italians themselves, who represent a culture so different from ours as to be from a planet that whips around a lonely sun a million light-years away). Took years of it in college, enough so that, in grad school, I could limp through The Divine Comedy in the original; drag myself through the Vita Nuova; mumble through Cavalcanti with sweat breaking out on my forehead; demean Boccaccio with my attention.
It hasn’t stuck. In my mid-20s, I jettisoned my academic baggage, trying to forget that for significant portions of my youth, I’d thought it would please me to spend the rest of my life in the world community of medievalists and semioticians. Wow. The languages, unfortunately, went over the gunwale with the academic encrustations, and I abandoned “language” as a system and committed myself to trying to make a living manipulating English. But I’d always liked the Italian.
I’d always liked S.F. Vanni, the Italian-language bookstore in the West Village, too. In college, teachers would send us down there to purchase texts. Visiting was a little adventure back into the West Village’s egghead past?into that beatnik era when one consumed one’s Fellini with one’s espresso down at Cafe Roma. These sorts of resonances meant a lot to an undergraduate just blooming into his intellectual self-importance; a brownstone world full of horn-rimmed poets just back from Roma and Trieste, of European ambiences, of abstract expressionists in striped jerseys. And they might mean a lot to the analogous contemporary undergraduate, God help him.
Anyway, Vanni is a little store on a leafy block of the type populated by old women who ride old bicycles and still promulgate a vague type of socialism. It’s a quiet, dark, sweet little place; you’ve got be buzzed in, and from the windows above you can hear opera blaring when you walk by some evenings. I’m no partisan of “atmospheric” bookshops?I find what I need at Barnes & Noble, and like the efficiency and hygiene of the chain store?but Vanni comes by its atmosphere honestly. It’s the place to go for Italian-language books, the place where the teachers and professors and the translators and the students go, and the men of letters, living their lives, like hardy mites, in the spaces between the fibers of the city’s fabric. There aren’t typically more than a handful of patrons in the shop, if any; it’s one of those places from an older New York that you hope persists. It’s a landmark, of sorts, but it’s also, merely and honorably, the place to go if you need Italian Idioms with Proverbs, A Comparative Practical Grammar of French, Spanish and Italian or Giacosa’s Come le foglie, copies of which reside in the shop’s dusty display window.